Microsoft Exchange 2010 offers up great Web mail option

End-users accustomed to Web-based access to their personal e-mail through free Internet services such as Google’s Gmail, expect the same power and access through a browser for their business e-mail. Exchange 2010 stands up very well to these high expectations.

Exchange 2010’s Web client is easier to use thanks to features such as threaded messaging (which sorts and groups messages by subject line) and single-screen in-box (which lets you see all your messages without having to click “Next screen”).

Microsoft added strong server-side search features in Exchange 2007, and these are extended to the Web client (and mobile device clients) in Exchange 2010. This gives you access to your entire message store, even if you’re on a device that has no local mail storage.

Exchange 2010 also includes a helpful new feature called “MailTips,” which pops up information messages about e-mail you’re composing. For example, if you’re sending a message to someone who has set a vacation message, MailTips pops up this information while you’re addressing the message.

The version we tested had several examples, including warnings about sending binary attachments (such as .EXE files) which recipients might not be able to open, sending to large distribution lists, and sending to lists with off-network members. Some of the MailTips in Microsoft’s early documentation were not working in the beta version we tested.

Exchange 2010 adds some important changes for non-Internet Explorer browsers by officially and fully supporting both Firefox and Safari with its Premium version of the Outlook Web Access client. In our testing, while Firefox and Safari do get a better experience than in the past, they aren’t quite at parity with the Internet Explorer experience.

For example, a number of features — such as MailTips and drag-and-drop of attachments — simply don’t work. Additionally, Exchange 2010 managed to crash our Safari browser several times. Some of these issues will likely be resolved as Exchange 2010 moves from beta to full release.

Some of the most interesting features on the user side relate to the ability for users to control their own environments. Microsoft has moved a number of controls out to the end user, a significant trend in a world where end users are more comfortable with collaboration tools than ever before. This movement is driven in part by Exchange’s push into hosted e-mail services, a world where end-user self service is an expected feature.
In Exchange 2010, these self-service features are spilling over into the corporate environment as well. Exchange managers can now allow end users to update their address information, search for delivery reports on messages they’ve sent or received, and manage and moderate distribution lists.

For enterprises that haven’t given up on mailing lists handled through Exchange, these features should all reduce help desk calls and significantly improve user satisfaction with their e-mail system. (Again, not all these features are available in browsers other than IE7.)

In our testing, the message tracking available to end users could use some work – it provides little detail other than times that messages were submitted and then delivered, without really explaining where and how Exchange sent the message, especially when sending out to the Internet. However, given that end users had none of this information in the past, this is a step forward, one that could easily be improved now that the gates are open.

If you’ve chosen to integrate Exchange into your IP-based telephony system, end users will likely fall in love with another new feature: voice mail preview. When voice mail messages are received in Exchange, it attempts to create a text preview of the voice mail (Microsoft told us that 16 languages are supported).

This would let you preview your voice mail on a mobile device or a Web-based environment where audio isn’t readily available. We haven’t seen too many organizations link Exchange that closely to their IP PBXs, but Microsoft continues to provide reasons to consider making the connection.

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